The Iran Nuclear Deal Was About More Than Just Nukes

A primer on the geopolitical context (Updated January 5, 2020)

Have you ever seen a Western media source portray the Islamic Republic of Iran in a way that wasn’t negative? I haven’t. Almost any mention of Iran notes that it is a theocracy, sponsors terrorist groups, and is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons with which it intends to menace Israel and destabilize the Middle East. The first two accusations are mostly true, but the last one is on shakier ground, and together they all gloss over the complex historical, religious, and strategic contexts in which Iran exists today. Not that anyone cares to teach you that part. I’ll do my best.

Note: Read my update at the end of this article about the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, former general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of the Quds Force.

The assassinations by the U.S. were only possible because neither Iran nor Iraq possess nuclear weapons, which would deter aggression.

Iran is the focal point of Shi’a Islam, though Shi’as account for only 10–13% of Muslims worldwide. Combined with their experience of having been the target of foreign interference and occupation throughout the twentieth century, the Iranian perspective is that of an underdog despite their rich and ancient history as Persians.

An event known as the martyrdom of Hussein helps to understand the Iranian worldview. During the 7th-century chain of events that would split Islam into its main Sunni and Shi’a sects, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein was killed in battle at Karbala by Caliph Yazid’s forces, a moment still commemorated across the Muslim world by the day of Ashura. In his book Revolutionary Iran, Michael Axworthy describes how

since that time the Shi’a have mourned [Hussein’s martyrdom] as the essence of injustice; as the victory of the oppressors over the righteous, of the strong over the weak …

Several moments since then have supported Iranians’ view of themselves as an oppressed people. In 1953 British MI6 and the CIA helped to orchestrate a coup d’état to overthrow Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who promised to nationalize Iran’s petroleum industry. In his place they reinstalled the brutal, but pro-Western, autocrat Mohammad Reza Shah. Events like this inspired a feeling of injustice among Iranians and did much to fuel the resentment and suspicion that many still feel toward the West today, especially when viewed against the enduring symbolic backdrop of Hussein’s martyrdom. Iran’s theocratic regime, which has ruled since the revolution in 1979, is eternally suspicious of Western encroachment into its affairs.

The Nuclear Question

Fast-forward to the present day, where Iran says it’s pursuing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes — a claim met with much skepticism based on the technical details discovered about its activities. On the one hand, in 2003 Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denied that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons by issuing a fatwa stating that Islam forbids the production and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). On the other hand, United Nations inspectors found Iran to be enriching radioactive material beyond the point required for civilian purposes.

Based on those findings, several countries levied economic sanctions on Iran in a bid to bring it to the bargaining table. In 2015, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (known as the P5 +1), along with the European Union, concluded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran designed to limit its nuclear capacity in exchange for sanctions relief.

The agreement’s detractors were vocal. President Trump called it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” John Bolton, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, favoured bombing Iran preemptively instead of negotiating. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu tried to undermine the deal since the beginning, from his fearmongering red line speech at the UN General Assembly in 2012, to going over President Obama’s head by addressing the US Congress in 2015, to his 2018 theatrical slideshow — aimed, in English, at a certain pliable president.

Bibi’s red line. (Source: npr.org)

It worked. In May 2018, the Trump administration announced that the United States was withdrawing from the nuclear deal and reimposing economic sanctions on Iran unilaterally, much to the chagrin of the Europeans. Moreover, the US threatened to sanction any other country that traded with Iran as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign to isolate it as much as possible. Approximately 80 percent of Iran’s economy is now subject to sanctions, according to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and ordinary Iranians are feeling the squeeze.

In international-affairs parlance, ‘hawks’ favour using military force and driving hard bargains more readily than ‘doves,’ who prefer diplomacy and conciliation. Although the dissenters are outnumbered by a large international consensus in support of the nuclear deal, hawks and doves in the US have debated it fiercely.

Critics of the deal prefer sticks over carrots when dealing with Iran because they distrust it deeply. A sizable chunk of that misgiving can be laid at the feet of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, as president of Iran from 2005 to 2013, became known for denying the Jewish Holocaust and other sabre-rattling rhetoric toward Israel. Many Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself, have made hostile remarks about Israel on several occasions. The distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism frequently comes down to semantics, so aggressive comments like those are interpreted variously. In any case, these tactics have alienated Iran from much of the world, for they portray the country as a potentially existential threat to Israel should it ever acquire a nuclear weapon. Despite the election of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, as president in 2013, Iran’s image remains burdened by Ahmadinejad’s legacy and by the opinions of the state’s conservative clerical establishment.

The now defunct JCPOA. (Source: thirdway.org)

In spite of Khamenei’s fatwa banning WMD, critics also point to the principle of ‘expediency’ as a reason for why such purportedly reassuring gestures should not necessarily be trusted. Expediency in this sense means that Iran’s supreme leader may prioritize his country’s raison d’état over Islamic precepts should the two come into conflict, the theory being that Shi’a Islam’s vitality depends on the existence of a Shi’a Islamic state. This can be interpreted to mean that Iran will pursue nuclear weapons if its leadership decides that the state’s well-being demands them, regardless of what Islamic law says.

A nuclear weapon is just an instrument used to gain leverage in geopolitics.

By the same token, however, expediency also means that Iran has no incentive to use nuclear weapons. Launching a nuclear first-strike would provoke a devastating counterattack from Israel and the US, annihilating Iran along with the Shi’a Islamic project. Iran’s leadership, like everyone, understands that nuclear weapons are meant only to deter aggression, rather than to detonate in anger. After all, that’s the great paradox of nuclear deterrence based on mutually assured destruction (MAD). Faced with this counterpoint, Western hawks typically insist, amid much hand-waving, that Iran cannot be restrained by the threat of obliteration because its leadership is irrational and suicidal. That’s a baseless and desperate assertion, but a necessary one for those who wish to justify a hardline foreign policy.

It’s entirely possible that Iran’s strategy is to reach a nuclear ‘breakout capacity’, whereby it would possess the ingredients for a nuclear bomb without actually assembling any weapons. Doing this would put it in the same club as Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Canada, and others. Maintaining a breakout capacity wouldn’t contravene Khamenei’s fatwa, either, because technically it would not possess nuclear weapons — just their requisite parts.

More Than Meets the Eye

While the world would be better off without nuclear weapons, their strategic value keeps them around. The presence of nuclear weapons raises the stakes so much that it discourages war: with the exception of a limited conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999, nuclear-armed states have never gone to war with one another directly. At the same time, the promise of MAD makes nuclear weapons effectively unusable. A nuclear weapon, therefore, is just an instrument used to gain leverage in geopolitics.

Which is why Iran seeks to achieve breakout capacity. The last seventy years have taught that nuclear-armed states are, so far, immune to existential threats. (Even during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel, they probably didn’t know Israel had nuclear weapons. In any case, the goal was only to take back territory Israel had seized in 1967, not invade Israel completely.) On the other side of the ledger, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi each possessed or sought WMD at one point. Both eventually agreed to abandon those programs. Both, eventually, were overthrown and killed — with help from NATO military power. It’s easy to see why the leaders of Iran and North Korea are so reluctant to follow the same path.

Iran should be discouraged from pursuing nuclear weapons in the interest of halting and reversing nuclear proliferation worldwide. If Iran were to obtain that capacity, Saudi Arabia would likely feel the need to follow suit. The international community broadly supports the JCPOA because arms races are bad for everyone.

Israel and the US refuse to grant Iran a nuclear breakout capacity for a more strategic reason. Iran’s clerical leadership doesn’t recognize the State of Israel’s right to exist, but it wouldn’t use a strengthened nuclear posture to nuke Israel, either. Instead, possessing a nuclear deterrent could embolden Iran’s efforts to undermine Israel through its support for militant groups like Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Hamas, in Gaza. The US and Israel would no longer be able to threaten Iran with invasion, for fear of risking nuclear escalation.

The strategic dimension of the nuclear question is top of mind for hawks like Reuel Marc Gerecht. In opposition to the nuclear deal, he argues that “the JCPOA has effectively made America a handmaiden to the [Iranian] clerical regime’s adventurism.”

He means that by lifting some economic sanctions, the nuclear deal has enabled Iran’s military forays in Iraq and Syria. Calling that adventurism is accurate, but hypocritical. Gerecht’s side engages in adventurism as well. Except when America does it, it’s suddenly called ‘leadership’ — which, naturally, is needed to anchor a Western “moral order that keeps much of the world from descending into a Hobbesian state of nature.” Indeed, Gerecht rightly condemns Iran’s expansionist endeavours in one breath, only to lament “America’s downsizing in the … Middle East” in the next. If the hawks who oppose the JCPOA were really interested in stopping nuclear proliferation, they’d be railing against their own country’s (far larger and more sophisticated) arsenal, too. What they care about is domination, and they’re proud of it. Iran’s leadership — though no less cynical — understands this reality well.

Let He Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone

Iran has good reasons to be weary of aggression. In July 1988, a US warship mistakenly shot down an Iranian commercial airliner carrying 290 people. In the context of its war with Iraq at that time — whose chemical attacks the United States was enabling — Iran perceived the incident to be deliberate, fortifying its view that America was committed to Iran’s destruction.

When the reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected president of Iran in 1997, an opportunity for reconciliation with the West appeared to be at hand. Mutual American and Iranian interests following the 9/11 attacks also presented a logical moment for rapprochement, because al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban are both enemies of Iran. Instead, US President George W. Bush dashed those hopes by naming Iran in his 2002 “axis of evil” speech. More recently, events like the assassinations of key Iranian nuclear scientists by Israeli Mossad, and the Stuxnet cyber attacks on Iran’s centrifuges, have further reinforced the narrative in Iranian minds that their country is fighting the good fight against foreign oppression. (By the way, imagine what the consequences would be if Iranian operatives assassinated an Israeli in Tel Aviv.)

Then there’s the small detail of Israel’s nuclear weapons, which give it a regional nuclear monopoly. Iran is party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), whereas Israel is one of only four countries that are not. During the mid-to-late 1960s — the time at which Israel is thought to have acquired nuclear weapons — its perspective was that possessing them was necessary to ensure its own survival. Today, however, Israel boasts one of the most sophisticated armed forces in the world, let alone in the Middle East.

The political scientist Kenneth Waltz, for one, has argued that Iran should be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons in order to maintain power balance in the Middle East, which he believes will lead to greater peace and stability. Of course, in the interest of reducing nuclear stockpiles worldwide, the best outcome would be for Israel to simply dismantle its arsenal. As this 2018 interview (below) with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu makes clear, however, the Israeli government refuses to deal in good faith on that matter.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed that Iran is faithfully complying with the JCPOA, and experts say that the ‘revelations’ in Netanyahu’s overblown slideshow are old news. Even America’s former Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, testified that “[the Iran deal] is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat.” Critics of the deal are grasping at straws.

Resistance to the nuclear deal should be interpreted as a tactic to raise tensions with Iran, perhaps to the point of deliberate conflict. Philip Gordon notes that

Insisting on an agreement that required Iran to abandon its entire nuclear program as well as fundamentally transform its regional foreign policy would mean having no agreement at all.

Those hankering for a tougher deal know perfectly well that they won’t get one. Why, then, do they press their hard line? Because they have itchy trigger fingers. Gerecht makes no secret of his aim in this regard, admitting that “regime change ought to be the ultimate goal of American foreign policy toward the Islamic Republic.”

It’s easy to see why Iran feels threatened. Israel and Pakistan are nuclear powers to its west and east, and American military forces are omnipresent across the region. Israel has stated that it will not permit Iran to reach a nuclear breakout capacity, and has a history of taking preemptive military action. Since the logic of nuclear weapons comes down to deterring aggression, Israel should understand better than anyone why Iran might desire a bomb of its own.

Its views and actions toward Israel, together with its cryptic nuclear activities, have earned Iran a reputation as a troublemaker. But Israel’s leadership and other powers are not without blame, for their militarism has contributed to making Iran feel insecure. Joining the nuclear club is a logical strategy from Tehran’s perspective, even if nuclear proliferation is undesirable for the world as a whole. Needless to say, it would help if those who already possess nuclear weapons weren’t such hypocrites.

Update (January 5, 2020)

Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US airstrike on January 3, 2020, along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi military commander. There are countless articles available online explaining who they were, so I won’t focus on those details here.

Instead, I’ll quickly explore the significance of this event within the context of the nuclear question. The most important things to understand are:

  1. The assassinations by the US were only possible because neither Iran nor Iraq possess nuclear weapons, which would deter aggression.
  2. The US and Israel want to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear deterrent because they want to retain the option of attacking, and possibly invading, Iran if they ever feel the need to do so. In other words, nuclear politics is fundamentally about who has geostrategic leverage. To reiterate, nuclear-armed states do not go to war with each other (at least not directly) because doing so would risk escalation to the point of triggering nuclear war. Notice that no country, including the United States, has ever invaded a country that possesses a nuclear arsenal for this very reason.
  3. In the absence of possessing a nuclear deterrent, Iran relies on proxy militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shi’a militias in Iraq to act as a security buffer against its perceived enemies. In other words, Iran’s response to the assassination of its most senior military official will likely include attacks by some of these groups against targets in Israel, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia.

I write about politics, economics, and feminism. Check out my Table of Contents for a list of everything I’ve written on Medium.

2018 winner of the Dalton Camp Award for essay-writing. M.A. Political Science. I'll go to the mat for the Oxford comma.